Journalist, author and non-resident fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
Maziar Bahari woke up in his cell in Tehran’s Evin Prison and thought of Zahra Kazemi.
It was June 21, 2009, nine days after an almost certainly fraudulent election returned hardline Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, and two days after Iranian authorities violently crushed protests by the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who believed their votes had been ignored.
Bahari, a Canadian citizen born in Iran, was in the country reporting for Newsweek and had watched as protesters were chased and beaten by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its civilian Basij militia. Several were killed.
One of the last things Bahari saw that night before returning to his mother’s house, where he stayed while in Iran, was a guardsman kicking a man unconscious and dragging him by his hair out his car while his comrade turned on the man’s wife—kicking her through the windshield as well. When she held up her hands to protect her face, the Revolutionary Guard screamed at her to lower them because it was un-Islamic for a woman to touch a man—even the boots of a man kicking her—who was not a relative.
The next morning Iranian agents burst into Bahari’s room with a warrant for his arrest. They spent hours searching his belongings, asking if movie DVDs or a Sopranos box set were pornography. They declined his 83-year-old mother’s offer of tea because they did not want to “impose” and asked her to put on a headscarf in their presence.
One agent threatened to beat Bahari so badly his mother would mourn him, and then took him to Evin, where a guard casually accused him of working for the Americans. But he was not immediately told what his supposed crimes were, and on the morning he woke up thinking of Kazemi he had not yet been abused.
Bahari, however, had reason to fear what he might soon face. On the wall of his cell someone had written, in Persian and Arabic:
My God, I repent.
My God, have mercy on me.
Please, God help me.
Bahari also knew what Kazemi had suffered in the same prison where he was now confined.
Like Bahari, Kazemi was an Iranian-Canadian journalist, arrested while taking photographs outside Evin Prison in 2003 and accused of espionage—a charge that would soon be levelled at Bahari.
Kazemi died 19 days after her arrest. Shahram Azam, an Iranian doctor who examined her unconscious body and later fled to Canada, testified that she had been brutally raped. Her fingers were broken and missing nails. She had been flogged. A toe and her nose were broken. Her skull was fractured.
Bahari was luckier. Although he was tortured physically and mentally, he survived his imprisonment and was released, 118 days after his arrest, after pretending to agree he would spy on behalf of Iran.
Kazemi’s murder—for which no one was convicted—sent relations between Canada and Iran spiralling downward. In 2005, Canada’s then-Liberal government limited engagement between the two counties to the Kazemi case, Iran’s human rights record and Iran’s nuclear non-proliferation performance. Under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2012, Canada severed diplomatic ties completely—shuttering Canada’s embassy in Iran and expelling Iranian diplomats from Canada. Canada simultaneously listed Iran as a state-sponsor of terrorism.
Harper’s government gave a variety of reasons for suspending relations, including Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and its “blatant disregard” for the Vienna Convention guaranteeing the safety of diplomatic personnel. Angry crowds in Tehran had ransacked the United Kingdom’s embassy in 2011. (However, unlike Canada’s, the UK embassy reopened in 2015.)
Then-foreign minister John Baird also stressed Canada’s concern over the safety of Canadian diplomats—although he said he was unaware of any specific threats. That Canada’s embassy was at serious risk is not universally accepted by those familiar with the case. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada produced a “threat alert” regarding the embassy on March 20, 2012. But the contents of that alert were redacted when it was later released through an access-to-information request.
Whatever the dangers faced by Canadian diplomats in Iran, the Conservatives’ decision to cut off relations with the country also neatly encapsulated their broader approach to foreign policy—one that was more assertive, belligerent (at least rhetorically) and, according to Conservatives, principled than that of their Liberal predecessors.
Canada will not “go along to get along,” Harper liked to say. And so he ruffled feathers at the United Nations, trumpeted Canada’s support for Israel, scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin and shunned any moves toward Western rapprochement with Iran.
Critics pointed out that the Conservatives’ chosen international causes tended to play well with targeted constituencies at home, and that vote-seeking pragmatism likely motivated the Tories at least as much as did principles. But their relentless hostility toward Iran was nevertheless a cornerstone of their political brand and international strategy.
Canada’s current Liberal government wants to reverse all that. Last year, Justin Trudeau campaigned on an intention to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, and, eight months after Trudeau’s election, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion in June said official talks have started.
Cutting ties with Iran “had no positive consequence for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the people of Iran, not for Israel and not for global security,” Dion said in speech this spring at the University of Ottawa. Dion said Canada needs to return to Iran “to play a useful role in that region of world.”
While vague on what exactly that role might be, and how restoring ties with Iran might enhance it, here was an emphasis on pragmatism over ideology. But for the Liberals, too, re-engaging with Iran is emblematic.
“I think our government is committed to projecting a new image on the international scene. We believe that engagement with all countries is the right approach, and I think the Iran policy falls within the broad sweep of our general approach to foreign affairs,” says Ali Ehsassi, a Liberal MP elected last fall.
Complicating the re-engagement process is Iran’s recent incarceration of at least two Canada-linked prisoners.
Homa Hoodfar, a Concordia University anthropology professor who writes about culture and gender, was arrested in June and held until her surprise release on Monday, Sept. 26. (Editor's Note: This article was amended following Hoodfar's release. Interviews for this story were conducted beforehand.)
According to Iranian media, she had been charged with collaborating with a hostile government and spreading propaganda against the state. Hoodfar’s family had recently reported that she was being held in solitary confinement. Her health was failing so badly, they said (she suffers from a rare neurological disease) that she could hardly walk or talk.
Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian permanent resident, has been jailed since 2008, accused of producing obscene materials and propagandizing against the Islamic Republic. He has had two death sentences suspended.
Re-engagement may be a chance for Canada to secure the release of Malekpour (with further details yet to be released on Hoodfar's case) —or his continued incarceration may be proof that the Iranian regime deserves only continued isolation.
On this, and on much else regarding the restoration of diplomatic ties—including human rights, business opportunities, Canada’s obligations to its allies, Ottawa’s potential influence in the region and whether re-engagement might facilitate Iranian espionage and other underhanded activities in Canada—there is little consensus. Even those who have been most affected by the Iranian regime’s cruelty are divided.
Bahari favours re-engagement—as a means to protect Canadians in Iran, for the convenience of Iranian Canadians who need access to consular services in Canada and because the best way for Canadian diplomats to understand Iran is by being there, he says. He also thinks the image of Iranians lining up outside the Canadian embassy to get a visa will demonstrate to Iranian authorities exactly what Iranian citizens think of their government.
Maryam Malekpour, Saeed’s sister who now lives in Edmonton, is conflicted. Her brother was not released during the Harper government’s period of open hostility toward Iran, and she wants to believe a new approach could help Saeed. But she fears he may be forgotten.
In emails to Trudeau and Dion, she urged Canada to place human rights, and especially the rights of Canada-linked prisoners such as Saeed, as the forefront of any talks with Iran.
“What he has gone through in Iran is an insult to any Canadian’s sense of justice,” she wrote, speaking of her brother.
“Opening up relations with the government of Iran while Saeed remains in prison would place Canadian values at stake.”
Stéphane Dion responded to Malekpour with a personal letter. He said Saeed’s case is “of concern” but added there is little Canada can do for him because he is not a Canadian citizen. Then he wrote about re-engagement in the broader context of human rights in Iran.
“Canada,” he said, “remains concerned with Iran’s human rights record and will use its re-engagement with Iran as a tool to support efforts to advance human rights.”
That Canada’s re-engagement with Iran will benefit human rights in the country is an argument the Liberals have often deployed, but Dion has offered few details. In an email interview, his spokesperson Chantal Gagnon said the international community must pressure Iran. “However the only way to maintain that pressure is with a strategy of engagement,” she said.
Peter Kent, the Conservatives’ critic for foreign affairs, thinks this is naïve. “I simply think that so many of Mr. Dion’s positions on reconciliation with leaders and regimes which by their continued behavior show little likelihood of reforming is unrealistic,” he says.
“I still believe we should isolate Iran, I believe at all costs, given all their sins and their unwillingness to even suggest that they will reform their ways. I favour continued isolation until they do.”
Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa who previously worked as a Middle East analyst for the Department of National Defence, also doubts the potential efficacy of Canadian pressure.
“We’re not going to have any impact whatsoever on the human rights situation in Iran, on Iran’s regional policies,” he says. “That’s the Liberal side of posturing for domestic political purposes.”
Kaveh Shahrooz, an Iranian-Canadian human rights activist who narrowly lost a nomination contest to represent the Liberals in the last federal election, is similarly skeptical. Kazemi, he points out, was murdered when Canada had an ambassador in Tehran.
“While we were there, we weren’t able to even save our own citizen from horrendous torture and rape and murder, so I’m not sure what we’re going to be doing with respect to helping the Iranian people by having a presence there when we can’t even protect our own,” he says.
“The simple matter is that when we had perfectly good relations with Iran, the situation for Iranians was pretty dire, and our relations with Iran certainly didn’t help with respect to Iranian Canadians. I fail to understand this talking point that the government has put out.”
But Bahari, imprisoned and released before relations between Canada and Iran were cut, cautions against assuming Canadian diplomats have been unable to help all Canadians detained in Iran. While he attributes his release in large part to a public campaign waged on his behalf—Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, and then-NDP leader Jack Layton both spoke publicly about his case—he says Canadian diplomats likely played a behind-the-scenes role as well.
“I think the Canadian diplomats who were in Iran, their voices were heard by the Iranian government much more than the Canadian diplomats outside Iran,” he says.
“When diplomats are based in a country, they have more leverage because they have more access to people within the judiciary, people within the Interior Ministry, people within the security services, and they can talk with them directly.”
Canada lacks such access now. But in the prospect of restoring diplomatic relations, Canada does have what Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, described in testimony to a House of Commons committee this spring as “a bargaining chip” it should not spend cheaply.
“The ruling elite [of Iran] have a special interest in having access to Canada because they have invested a lot of their money there, their children study there, and their families have migrated to cities like Toronto and Vancouver,” Akhavan said in a subsequent interview.
This gives Canada an advantage, Akhavan says, which Ottawa should exploit by demanding the release of Malekpour (and Hoodfar, he said, before her release) as part of a broader range of concessions from Iran on human rights.
The idea resonates with Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal minister of justice and a long-time advocate for international human rights—particularly in Iran. “If that were not to be done, then I would wonder why we would engage in diplomatic relations,” he says.
Cotler says he recently met with Dion to discuss Hoodfar and Malekpour. “He said, ‘Irwin, we’re doing all we can with regard to Homa Hoodfar, but you know we’re limited because we don’t have diplomatic relations and have to operate through third countries.’
“I can understand that limitation. But I’m saying if we’re going to re-engage, we shouldn’t be thereby limited, or limiting ourselves. We will have to re-engage with all the seriousness that that commands in terms of the intensification of our advocacy, particularly on the human rights front.”
Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, an Iranian-Canadian activist who campaigns on Saeed Malekpour’s behalf, says the release of Malekpour and Hoodfar is the least Canada should secure as part of negotiations over restoring ties. Freeing them, she says, will be much more difficult once negotiations are concluded.
“The fact that they arrested Homa Hoodfar just shows how much they already don’t take the Canadian government seriously. So if the Canadian government is just going to bow down to the Iranian regime and give them something without having them do the bare minimum, which is release the Canada-linked prisoners … I don’t see why this captor would later on release them.”
Nayeb Yazdi, however, worries that Malekpour’s freedom is not a priority for the Canadian government.
“I feel like there’s this internal conflict between the Liberal and Conservatives, and this case is stuck in the middle.”
Hoodfar and Malekpour are unique only because of their links to Canada. Iran’s prisons are full of innocents—political dissidents, journalists, members of the Baha’i religious minority and those who have simply fallen afoul of a dictatorship with a deeply flawed and illiberal justice system.
Akhavan says the human rights situation in Iran has remained the same or worsened since the election of the comparatively moderate Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013, and last year’s deal on Iran’s nuclear program. (The agreement, reached between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union, lifts some international sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran limiting aspects of its nuclear program.)
“The nuclear deal gave people hope for greater openness, but the regime wants to make it clear that pragmatic concessions on the foreign policy front are not an invitation for internal reform,” Akhavan said in an email interview.
The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center says 966 people were executed in Iran last year, compared to 518 killed in 2012, the last full year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Canada’s goals regarding how it might influence human rights in Iran must therefore extend beyond the fates of Hoodfar and Malekpour, says Akhavan.
In his testimony to the House of Commons committee, Akhavan described Baha’is in Iran as the regime’s “scapegoat of choice” and said how they are treated is a “litmus test” for the broader state of human rights in the country.
The Baha’i faith is a monotheistic religion with roots in 19th-century Persia. Baha’is in Iran, who number some 350,000, are persecuted and marginalized—barred from attending university or holding government jobs.
“In these circumstances, if Iran wants diplomatic relations, could Canada call for the release of the seven Baha’i leaders as a gesture of goodwill?” Akhavan told the committee, referring to men and women who have been jailed since 2008 on charges of espionage for Israel, “insulting religious sanctities,” and “propaganda against the system.”
Several persecuted Iranian Baha’is have ties to Canada. Shakib Nasrullah returned to Iran after completing a Master’s degree in counselling psychology at McGill. Because he is Baha’i, Nasrullah could not obtain a job through official channels, but a sympathetic friend gave him one in a clinic. When Iranian authorities found out, Nasrullah was arrested and taken to Evin.
“Basically the person said: ‘Look, we’re not going to allow you to hold any job in the farthest village of Iran. You say you have a Master’s degree from McGill. How come you’re here? Just leave the country.’ That was the main point for them. They much prefer Baha’is and all active players in civil society to leave Iran,” says Nasrullah, who was released after 10 days and is now a doctoral student at McGill.
Nasrullah says Baha’is are persecuted officially on religious grounds, but he says Iran sees them as a political threat: “If Baha’is were not proponents of universal education, were not supportive of the equality of men and women, were not searching for fundamental changes in the structure of society in Iran and the separation of religion and government, they wouldn’t care.”
Akhavan says Canada should also plan to engage with Iranian civil society groups and political dissidents. He gives as an example an EU delegation’s visit to human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. The regime could not prevent the visit, he says, because it wanted improved diplomatic relations with the EU. By visiting Sotoudeh, the delegation sent a message to all Iranians that the EU cares about their human rights, too.
“Human rights have to be one of the elements in the diplomatic relationship right from the start, and it can grow over time as ties increase between the two countries,” says Akhavan.
“Iran has to earn ties with Canada by making concrete concessions, and Canada must then ensure that there is an on-going dialogue that includes connections with civil society and progressive political forces. There is a lot of promise in Iran, just below the surface, a new generation that wants closer ties with the world community, and an open society. The challenge of diplomacy is to deal with the regime while empowering these promising elements of Iranian society.”
Since 2003, Canada has led efforts to pass an annual resolution at the UN General Assembly condemning Iran’s human rights record—including its use of torture, restrictions on freedom of expression, and the state’s systematic targeting of human rights defenders such as journalists and lawyers. These efforts have continued under Canada’s current Liberal government, and Gagnon, Dion’s spokesperson, says Canada is pushing for a resolution on human rights in Iran at this month’s UN General Assembly as well. She says Canada also has no plans to remove Iran from its list of state supporters of terrorism (which, under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, allows victims of Iran-supported terrorism to sue Iran and collect on Iranian assets in Canada).
According to Cotler, pressure Canada applies on Iran as it re-engages with it must be more than rhetorical or symbolic. Canada currently sanctions Iranians linked to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Cotler believes Canada’s sanctions regime should also target those guilty of human rights offenses.
“I told the prime minister that I am in favour of a broader re-engagement policy, but not if it would be giving a blank cheque to human rights violators to continue their domestic oppression as well as their international human rights assaults,” he says.
“I would hope that the prime minister appreciates—and I think he does—that re-engagement cannot be a carte blanche for the human rights violators to continue with business as usual but that we will be in a position through that re-engagement to re-engage them on these human rights violations.
“We’ve been talking about re-engagement with the Iranian government, but it’s also re-engaging with the Iranian people. It’s also letting the Iranian people know that they are not alone and that we stand in solidarity with them, that we have not forgotten their political prisoners, and that we will continue to advocate on their behalf.”
This June, Bombardier Executive Chairman Pierre Beaudoin took a delegation from the Canadian aerospace and transportation company to Iran to discuss business opportunities that have opened up since Iran’s nuclear deal led to the easing of sanctions that had crippled its economy for years.
Canada amended its autonomous sanctions regime against Iran in February. Gagnon says this was done “to allow for economic re-engagement while ensuring we do not open the door to trade in proliferation-sensitive goods and technologies.” (It is still not permitted for Canadians to trade with Iran in goods or services related to nuclear proliferation or the development of ballistic missiles.
Bombardier did not sign any deals during its June trip. But the government believes there is potential. Canada hasn’t exported more than $100 million worth of good to Iran since 2011. Now, says Gagnon, “Iran will need to make a significant amount of investment in a variety of sectors where Canadian companies have expertise, such as aviation, energy, mining, agriculture, education, life sciences, infrastructure, transportation, clean technology and information and communications technology.”
Not everyone familiar with Iran shares Gagnon’s assessment of its potential as a trading partner.
Sven Jurschewsky, a retired Canadian diplomat who until 2014 was tasked with establishing a network to gather information on Iran from the Iranian diaspora and other sources in the Middle East and elsewhere, says: “We’re not going to sell these people anything.”
The real value of re-engagement, he says, lies in having diplomats stationed in the country who might—if they leave the embassy and talk to people—develop insight and expertise that could be useful to Canada and its allies. “This is how adults do foreign policy,” he says.
Juneau, the University of Ottawa professor, says Canadian business opportunities in Iran are limited. But he says trade, not human rights, is Canada’s primary interest in restoring ties with Iran.
It may be difficult to separate the two. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—the enforcers of Iran’s theocracy—have entrenched themselves in Iran’s economy. Trading with Iran, says Shahrooz, means “filling up the coffers of very unsavoury people.”
It may also mean business opportunities for Iranian Canadians.
There is no homogeneous Iranian-Canadian community. Many Iranians immigrated to Canada following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and are vociferously opposed to Iran’s Islamic government—some because they or their relatives suffered terribly at its hands. Others, often more recent immigrants, are more ambivalent or supportive. Some have family, friendship, or business ties with people in Iran’s government or religious leadership.
“So many of those people who have some sort of familial linkages with the regime are already in Canada,” says Saeed Rahnema, a retired political science professor at York University. “This is an unfortunate thing. If the relationship opens up, you’ll see more of these guys.”
According to Shahrooz, Iranian Canadians who favour normalizing relations with Iran for business reasons are gaining political influence at the expense of Iranian Canadians who believe Iran’s human rights offenses should preclude Canada restoring diplomatic ties.
“There are people who are politically engaged who are distraught at seeing relations go back to normal and human rights have more or less been forgotten about,” he says.
“But increasingly over the past few years, there’s been this influx of economic migrants, oftentimes people who have prospered under [Iran’s] government for whatever reason, and they would rather us treat Iran like any other country and do business with them, because that is what they’re primarily interested in. The Liberal government, unfortunately, I get the feeling that they’re listening much more the latter group than the former.”
“It feels to me that the government wants to engage in business and wants to make business interests paramount, but wants to give it a veneer of concern about human rights.”
Ehsassi says most Iranian Canadians support re-engagement for reasons that have little to do with business, or politics. They simply want to ease travel to and from Iran so that they can spend more time with parents, children and other loved ones.
But Iran also has a track record in Canada of what could be described as unofficial diplomacy. Under Canada’s “controlled engagement policy,” which governed relations between the two countries from 2005 to 2012, when they were suspended altogether, Iran was forbidden from opening consulates and cultural centres outside of Ottawa.
Iran flouted this rule, opening at least one cultural centre in Toronto and aggressively reaching out to student groups, Iranian Canadians and sympathetic Muslim Canadians. Iranian Canadians hostile to the regime also reported that they feared being watched, and that their families back in Iran might suffer as a result of their activism in Canada.
Bahari, for instance, has been contacted since his release by people he believes represent Iran’s government. They threatened to bring him back to Iran in a bag. But he downplays the security threat, and the threat to Iranian Canadians, that may result from Iranian diplomats returning to Canada.
“The Iranian government really doesn’t need diplomats to spy on people. They are spying on people all over the world, through students, through businessmen, through ordinary citizens, engineers, dentists, whatever. It’s very difficult to stop, but I don’t think the situation will worsen if the Iranian embassy re-opens,” he says.
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Even if Iranian diplomats do not engage in outright espionage once diplomatic ties with Canada are restored, they will resume their outreach efforts and will work to spread their influence in this country. They will try to engage with Canadian society, or at least the segments of it they think they can shape.
Canada might make a success of re-engagement if it aggressively does the same—if, as Irwin Cotler phrased it, Ottawa re-engages with the Iranian people rather than only its government.
“The Iranian people need confidence. They need to feel empowered,” says Nayeb Yazdi.
“They have already shown that they are willing to fight for their freedom. They are willing to protest for their rights. But, unfortunately, if they don’t feel that they’re supported, if the international community is not standing in solidarity with them, they’re going to lose that morale and confidence to continue. So ultimately the best thing that the Canadian government can do is help support initiatives that help empower the people of Iran rather than the Iranian regime.”
This is not an easy task in a dictatorship. Iranians who associate too closely with Western governments put themselves at risk. Iran will exploit any opportunity it can find to portray Iranian dissidents as Western pawns or worse.
And any impact Canada might have on human rights in Iran is limited, says Rahnema. “Even bigger powers cannot influence Iran, let alone a middle power,” he says. “I have no illusions that Canada can force [Iran’s supreme leader Ali] Khamenei and others to really respect human rights—not to flog workers, not to chain so many journalists, writers, artists.”
Still, a modicum of influence is better than none, he adds. “Not having relations means you reduce the whole thing to zero.”
And long odds of success are not a good reason for Canada to quiet its voice regarding human rights in Iran. Progress might not come from changing the behaviour of the Iranian government, but from supporting Iranian citizens.
As it did with Hoodfar, the Canadian government should demand the immediate release of Malekpour but it should not stop there.
Canadian parliamentarians in the past have “adopted” Iranian political prisoners as part of a campaign to bring attention to the injustices they suffer. This should continue. Trudeau should adopt a prisoner, as should Dion. They might consider one of the imprisoned Baha’i leaders whose persecution is symptomatic of more generalized repression in Iran.
And Canada, as Akhavan suggested, should seek to engage directly with Iranian civil society. This should not be an instructional relationship or anything subversive. Iranians do not need lessons on protest or dissent. But Canada’s democratic culture can benefit Iranians exposed to it and should be shared.
In the House of Commons earlier this year, Stéphane Dion was challenged by then-Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement to explain what he liked about Iran. Dion, in his bookish and unassuming manner, stood and replied simply: “Mr. Speaker, I like the people of Iran.”
It was an effective retort. Dion’s challenge, as re-engagement takes shape, will be proving it.